The program, in which a Chief Magistrate and two Justices of the Peace appointed by the Governor General visit the prison to hear the concerns and complaints of inmates, has not been active since 2008.
by Khaila Gentle
BELIZE CITY, Fri. Sept. 30, 2022
After being inactive for some fourteen years, the Kolbe Foundation’s Visiting Justices Program has been reintroduced to the Belize Central Prison. Through the program, a sitting Magistrate and two Justices of the Peace will be conducting regular visits to the prison in an effort to hear the concerns of inmates and assess their living conditions.
According to the Human Rights Commission of Belize, the Visiting Justices Program guarantees inmates institutionalized recognition, acknowledgment, and respect while strengthening the systems that maintain their human dignity. The program is made possible through the Prison Act, which empowers visiting justices with the ability to investigate cases in the prison, make reports, and assess the welfare and living conditions of the prisoners.
Kevin Arthurs, the CEO of the Ministry of Home Affairs and New Growth Industries—the Ministry responsible for prisons—said that the Government has a responsibility to the most vulnerable and forgotten to ensure that they are treated humanely.
Arthurs called Friday a “very proud day” for the Ministry, adding that the fact that the program has been inactive since 2008 is saddening.
According to the CEO, Belize has been fortunate for the past fourteen years, since having the benefit of a prison run by a private-public partnership between the Kolbe Foundation and the Rotary Club of Belize allowed some of the prevailing issues that should have been tackled by the Visiting Justice Program to have been instead solved by the prison’s administration.
“It’s a very involved system that makes the prisoners feel good, because, you know … part of what makes you human is the ability and the right to be heard and respected. And for this process, I think it will allow prisoners to feel as though they are people and not their mistakes. We want them to get back into society. We need a healthy Belize. We need a happy Belize. And I think this is a part of the process of getting Belize whole and healthy again,” Arthurs said.
In the eyes of Kolbe Foundation CEO Virgilio Murillo, the relaunch of the Visiting Justices Program is a value added to the already existing oversight systems in place at the Central Prison. At the end of the day, said Murillo, all organizations should be held accountable, and as such, there is no such thing as too much oversight or accountability. When one reporter asked why the program ever came to a stop, CEO Murillo said, “only heaven knows.”
“Remember this program is primarily funded by the Government. Kolbe Foundation does not control it. It’s just like the parole system. Some people are of the belief that the Kolbe Foundation is in charge of parole—Kolbe Foundation is not in charge of parole. It is the government that is in charge of parole,” he added.
Also present at the launch of the program were the president of the Association of Justices of the Peace, Adrian Madrid; Minister of Home Affairs and New Growth Industries, Hon. Kareem Musa; Project Coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Belize, Lizet Aldana, and Chief Magistrate Sharon Fraser.
The Chief Magistrate noted to local reporters that, since magistrates are the ones responsible for sending persons to prison, it is only right that they visit to see the conditions under which those persons are incarcerated.
“I have long believed that we should be coming here on a regular basis. Unfortunately, because of the level of work we have, it’s a little difficult. Now, with the Visiting Justice Program being put in place, at the very least there is a magistrate that will be on every visit, every session, that the visiting justices will be here,” she said.
According to Chief Magistrate Fraser, the prisoners should not have to wait until they go to court to make a complaint or raise a concern. Out of fear of victimization, however, many are reluctant to talk to persons within the prison.
“At least knowing that the visiting justices are here, they would know they have an additional outlet that they can refer any concerns, issues, or problems they would have encountered in the prison,” she said.
The Human Rights Commission has said that the reinstatement of the Visiting Justice Program will provide a “needed reminder” that prisoners are not forgotten or disposably condemned but “men and women that are fixing themselves and the wrongs they committed so they can get back home.”